Shinzo Abe

Can Yuriko Koike shake up Japan’s politics and energise economic reforms?

William Pesek says the Tokyo governor’s election challenge to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could be a ‘Macron moment’ for Japan, as she seeks to upend the male-dominated status quo and modernise the economy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 7:29pm

Depending on who you ask, Yuriko Koike is either Japan’s answer to Hillary Clinton or Emmanuel Macron. Clinton comparisons stem from Tokyo’s first female governor running the most convincing national leadership campaign by someone outside the patriarchy Japan has ever seen. But the analogy to the French president is more intriguing amid the shifting realities of the snap election Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for October 22.

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Three weeks ago, Abe having trouble clinging to power seemed unthinkable. Enter Koike who, like Macron, formed a new party, has the charisma to attract her pick of members and upended politics in short order. Abe’s poor reading of the electorate casts him in the role of British Prime Minister Theresa May, who made the same blunder in June. It gives Koike’s Party of Hope a shot at unseating Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and invigorating Japan’s economic reform process.

Amid the spin and hype surrounding Abenomics, it’s easy to miss how little Abe has accomplished since December 2012. Yes, the Nikkei 225 average is on the up, Japan is having its best run of growth in 11 years and business confidence is at a 10-year high. But the raison d’être of Abenomics – ending deflation to give Japanese workers a raise – has been a raid, a point Koike makes early and often. Japan’s revival is aimed at the 1 per cent. It’s making the wealthy richer, leaving average households looking for an alternative.

Abenomics has three phases, but only the initial two were implemented: aggressive Bank of Japan easing and fiscal loosening. The most important phase – structural upgrades – was largely put on the back burner once growth returned. Even the scheme’s successes like tighter corporate governance helped shareholders over workers. Efforts to pull more women into the labour force, meanwhile, actually undermined wages, as most are only getting “non-regular” jobs that pay less.

How much of a disruptor is Koike in Japanese politics?

October 22 could be a game-changer. Japanese elections tend to change nothing. But the Koike effect is different. If Abe clings to power, her challenge is likely to catalyse him to loosen labour markets, increase innovation and productivity, cut red tape, engineer a start-up boom and modernise the tax system. Abe’s cronyism scandals and tin ear to what voters crave caught up with his approval ratings, the highest of which are 40 per cent. Koike’s threat is the wake-up call for Japan to shift focus from a weak yen and corporate welfare to modernising the economy.

Investors should hope Koike’s party goes the “full Macron” and grabs the premiership. It won’t be easy; Abe’s LDP has held power with just two brief interruptions since 1955, has great sway over rural voters and fights dirty. If Koike wants to be prime minister, she must pick up her own parliament seat.

Still, the odds favour Koikenomics reaping greater benefits. In her 14 months running Tokyo, Koike displayed far more grit towards vested interests than Abe has in five years. She demanded details on why 2020 Olympics costs are already double initial estimates and has taken on the powerful nuclear and tobacco lobbies. While Tokyo wants to cut taxes on corporations, Koike wants to lower them for workers, too.

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Koike is keen to bring a Silicon Valley vibe to Tokyo to make Japan Inc. more about creating new, innovative jobs than protecting existing ones at corporate giants. The idea is to pass economic power to a new generation of entrepreneurs from the greybeards and bureaucrats fighting all disruptive change.

Taking on Japan’s “nuclear village” could create millions of good-paying jobs. This nexus of pro-reactor politicians, academics and investors wields the same power over Tokyo as the military-industrial complex does in Washington. Abe has spent inordinate time and energy trying to restart nuclear stations offline since the 2011 Fukushima crisis. That’s energy not spent getting Japan a bigger piece of the renewables revolution. Koike, wisely, thinks Japan’s future is inventing ways for China, India and Indonesia to advance without choking on rapid growth.

Japan’s “womenomics” also could use a, well, woman’s touch. For Koike, increasing the female presence in boardrooms and politics isn’t a talking point, but an existential economic priority. Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs estimates gross domestic product would get a 15 per cent boost if the female labour participation rate matched men’s (about 80 per cent). There’s no more obvious way to boost productivity and offset a shrinking and ageing labour pool than empowering women. And yet the patriarchy protects a status quo where Japan trails Saudi Arabia in the number of women in politics and Ethiopia in gender equality.

Win or lose, Koike’s Macron moment could be an economic game-changer for the better.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades. Twitter: @williampesek